Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic
by Chalmers Johnson
Metropolitan, 354 pp., $26.00
Second Chance: Three Presidents and the Crisis of American Superpower
by Zbigniew Brzezinski
Basic, 234 pp., $26.95
Statecraft and How to Restore America’s Standing in the World
by Dennis Ross
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 384 pp., $25.00
One of the few foreign policy achievements of the Bush administration has been the creation of a near consensus among those who study international affairs, a shared view that stretches, however improbably, from Noam Chomsky to Brent Scowcroft, from the antiwar protesters on the streets of San Francisco to the well-upholstered office of former secretary of state James Baker. This new consensus holds that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a calamity, that the presidency of George W. Bush has reduced America’s standing in the world and made the United States less, not more, secure, leaving its enemies emboldened and its friends alienated. Paid-up members of the nation’s foreign policy establishment, those who have held some of the most senior offices in the land, speak in a language once confined to the T-shirts of placard-wielding demonstrators. They rail against deception and dishonesty, imperialism and corruption. The only dispute between them is over the size and depth of the hole into which Bush has led the country he pledged to serve.
Last December’s Baker-Hamilton report, drawn up by a bipartisan panel of ten Washington eminences with perhaps a couple of centuries of national security experience between them and not a radical bone in their collective body, described the mess the Bush team had left in Iraq as “grave and deteriorating.” The seventy-nine recommendations they made amounted to a demand that the administration repudiate its entire policy and start again. In the words of former congressman Lee Hamilton, James Baker’s co-chair and a rock-solid establishment figure, “Our ship of state has hit rough waters. It must now chart a new way forward.”1
So it comes as less of a surprise than once it might have to see Dennis Ross and Zbigniew Brzezinski—two further fixtures of the national security elite—step forward to slam the administration in terms that would, in an earlier era, have seemed uncouth for men of their rank. Neither Ross, who served as Middle East envoy for both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, nor Brzezinski, a conservative Democrat and cold war hawk, could be dismissed as Nation-reading, Howard Dean types. Yet in withering new books they both eviscerate the Bush record, writing in the tone of exasperated elders who handed over the family business to a new generation, only to see their successors drive the firm into bankruptcy. Both books offer rescue plans for a US foreign policy they consider to be in tatters.
Accordingly, their arguments are less striking than the fact that it is Ross and Brzezinski who are making them. Those who have been listening to the antiwar movement since 2002 will nod along at this assessment of the Iraq adventure:
It is hard to exaggerate the Bush administration’s fundamental miscalculations on Iraq, including but not limited to unrealistic policy objectives; fundamental intelligence failures; catastrophically poor understanding of what would characterize the post-Saddam period, and completely unrealistic planning as a result; denial of the existence of an insurgency for several months; and the absence of a consistent explanation to the American people or the international community about the reasons for the war.
Small wonder that after nearly four years of warfare, Iraq has been a disaster, costing thousands of lives, requiring the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars, stretching our forces and reserve system to the breaking point, and becoming a magnet for terrorists and hostility toward the United States throughout the Muslim world.
But they should marvel that it comes from Dennis Ross, a loyal former lieutenant of Baker’s who writes glowingly of Bush père and who was as comfortable in a Republican administration as a Democratic one. If they do not, then it is only because Chuck Hagel, Gordon Smith, Scowcroft, and even the late Gerald Ford have made Republican attacks on the Bush record since 2001 seem normal.
Similarly, a sentence like this has been uttered in European chancelleries every week for five years:
The Iraq War in all its aspects has turned into a calamity—in the way it was internally decided, externally promoted, and has been conducted—and it has already stamped the Bush presidency as a historical failure.
Yet that verdict comes not from some Venusian in Paris or Berlin but from Brzezinksi, that hardheaded Martian creature of Washington. Lest there be any doubt, the former national security adviser to Jimmy Carter issues a report card on the three presidencies since the end of the cold war. George H.W. Bush gets a B, praised for his calm management of the expiration of the Soviet Union and the united international front he constructed for his own desert confrontation with Saddam. Clinton manages a C, credited for effective championing of globalization and oversight of NATO enlargement, but debited for allowing too many important matters, especially nuclear proliferation, to drift. Bush’s son is slapped with an unambiguous F.
That verdict is rooted in the administration’s invasion and occupation of Iraq, which can’t help but form the heart of both books. Judged even by the lights of Bush’s own “war on terror” it has been a spectacular failure. It took a country that had been free of jihadist militants and turned it into their most fecund breeding ground; it took a country that posed no threat to the United States and made it into a place where thousands of Americans, not to mention many tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Iraqis, have been killed. And it diverted resources from the task that should have been uppermost after September 11, namely the hunting down of Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants, allowing them to slip out of reach.
What’s more, Bush’s “war on terror” did bin Laden’s work for him. Brzezinksi is not alone in suggesting that it was a mistake to treat September 11 as an act of war, rather than as an outrageous crime; in so doing, the administration endowed al-Qaeda with the status it craved. What followed was a series of missteps that seemed bent on vindicating the jihadists’ claim of a war of the West against Islam. Whether it was the invasion of Iraq or the early talk of a “crusade” or the abuses at Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, the Bush administration fed violent Islamism all it needed to recruit young men the world over. What began as a fringe sect has become, thanks in no small measure to the Bush administration, a global movement able to draw on deep wells of support.
There were ancillary effects. North Korea and Iran, in addition to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq the other two charter members of the axis of evil, became more dangerous in the Bush years, advancing further down the nuclear road. That was partly because, with the US tied down in Iraq, they were given a free hand; and partly because the thumping of Saddam had taught would-be nuclear powers a crucial lesson. As Ross puts it, “We attacked Iraq, which did not have nuclear weapons, but have avoided doing the same with the North Koreans, who may have as many as twelve.” The 2003 invasion served as a glossy advertisement for the protective power of nuclear arms.
Both Ross and Brzezinski reserve special contempt for Bush’s handling of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, shifting the US position from that of an honest broker, albeit one sympathetic to one side, to a partisan ready to indulge whatever course Israel chose to adopt. Here Ross draws on his experience as Middle East envoy during the years of the Oslo peace process, explaining how disengagement by the Bush administration has not only prevented progress but also actively aggravated the conflict. Both authors lay out how the administration’s refusal to undertake the hard work of peacemaking has deprived the Palestinians of the state they have craved so long, denied Israel the long-term security it needs, and allowed the sore that most poisons Muslim attitudes toward the West to fester.
For those with the stamina to face it, there are further indictments in both books of every aspect of US foreign policy, from the failure to take a lead on dealing with climate change to the distracted inattention to the rise of China. Some of these strategic blunders relate once again to the invasion of Iraq, whether it be the needless estrangement of European allies or the avoidable driving into a corner of Iran, whose influence from Baghdad to Beirut has self-evidently increased.
The accumulated result has been a plunge in global esteem for the United States. A survey in January 2007 for the BBC World Service found that only 29 percent of those polled in eighteen countries believed the US was playing a “mainly positive role in the world,” a fall of eleven points in two years.2 As Brzezinski writes,
Because of Bush’s self-righteously unilateral conduct of US foreign policy after 9/11, the evocative symbol of America in the eyes of much of the world ceased to be the Statue of Liberty and instead became the Guantánamo prison camp.
It’s hard to read Ross and Brzezinksi without coming to share their nostalgia for the steady, realistic, and grounded statecraft of George H.W. Bush in contrast with the faith-based pursuit of neoconservative fantasy that has passed for international affairs under his son.
Scathing as they are, these books are mere slaps on the wrist compared to Nemesis, the third volume in Chalmers Johnson’s blistering trilogy, which stands as the centerpiece of the American Empire Project, a series of works published by Metropolitan Books examining recent changes in America’s strategic thinking, particularly under the Bush administration, and the consequences of those changes at home and abroad. The first in Johnson’s series, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, argued that the United States had, particularly through the covert activities of the Central Intelligence Agency, spilled so much blood and caused so much damage in other people’s countries that it was only a matter of time before it felt the wrath of those nations’ vengeance. (The term “blowback,” Johnson concedes, was not his own coinage: the CIA used it following its involvement in the 1953 overthrow of Iran’s elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadeq, an event that, according to Johnson, led to the blowback of the 1979 revolution and the installation by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of the anti-American theocracy which has ruled ever since.) Blowback was published in March 2000, making little impact. It took only eighteen months, however, for Blowback suddenly to look chillingly prescient, winning an audience for Johnson he might otherwise have lacked.
For while Brzezinski in particular edges up to the outer limits of the Washington foreign policy consensus, Johnson unabashedly stands far outside it. Ross and Brzezinski, as former security officials, take as their premise the belief that the United States should be the dominant force in international relations; Brzezinski goes so far as to dub Bush, Clinton, and Bush as “Global Leader” I, II, and III. The chief complaint of both Brzezinski and Ross is that the current president has fumbled this designated role. Johnson’s starting point is quite different: he brands as imperial arrogance the very assumption that America should extend its reach across the planet (and beyond, into the heavens).